The New York Giants had a defense in 2015. Of course they did, because that’s a basic requirement to play the game of football. But often, you couldn’t tell which provided more resistance: those 11 men stumbling about or the air that surrounded them.
The Giants fielded the NFL’s worst defense while giving up an average of 420.3 yards per game. The secondary was especially difficult to watch for those with a weak stomach (32nd with 298.9 yards allowed per game). But in fairness, a floundering pass rush (only 23 sacks) left the defensive backfield exposed.
The spending priority was clear this offseason, then: defense, more defense and then a little more defense. The Giants have been reinforced by the additions of defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Then there’s longtime Giant Jason Pierre-Paul, who was re-signed to the classic one-year, "prove it” deal.
All of that should give the Giants a swift and necessary kick to the rear, and the defensive additions alone elevate them to playoff-contender status again—particularly in an NFC East division that produced the only playoff team in 2015 that didn’t have double-digit wins.
But what if a near future is waiting for the Giants in which wins can come without a dramatic defensive leap forward? What if the Giants needed to only go from being a crime against defense to, say, a little below average?
“We expect to score the ball more,” he said. “We think we can score over 28 points a game. We were close to hitting that last year. I think being my third year in the offense, getting some new weapons like Sterling Shepard, getting Victor Cruz back, getting Larry Donnell back healthy...we do have a lot of weapons."
The Giants offense averaged 26.2 points per game in 2015. That ranked sixth, and it’s been a steady climb for offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Ben McAdoo after he took over play-calling in 2014.
|Giants points per game before and after hiring McAdoo|
New York added the necessary bulk to improve its defensive front, which will, by extension, also help out the secondary.
But overall, this team won't need to be pushed by its defense. Instead, it’s easy to see why only a marginal improvement could be more than enough. Suddenly, the Giants have the offensive firepower to keep a defense that’s merely average afloat to make a playoff appearance for the first time in four years.
The Giants will this offseason end up adding three core pieces to an already explosive offense: wide receiver Sterling Shepard (40th overall pick in in 2016), fellow wideout Victor Cruz and red-zone specialist tight end Larry Donnell. The latter two are returning from injury after playing a combined eight games in 2015, all of which came from Donnell during Cruz’s recovery from a torn patellar tendon.
Cruz took a major step forward during OTAs, as noted by Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News:
He should progress to the next level and participate in team drills once training camp begins.
It’s still unclear exactly what condition Cruz will return in and whether we'll ever see the same guy who put together back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard seasons in 2011 and 2012. But having him back, even a lesser capacity, still boosts the offensive depth of a team that just drafted Shepard, a younger and healthier version of Cruz.
Meanwhile, Donnell’s neck issue turned out to be worse than he first thought. The 6’6”, 265-pound behemoth told Vacchiano he had a broken bone in his neck “to a certain extent." I will never be mistaken for a medical examiner, but I know the neck is an important part of the body, and having a broken bone there to any extent at all is scary stuff.
Thankfully, Donnell has recovered, and he’s ready to resume being a running and/or rumbling skyscraper who often summons his magnetic catching powers. His height and length make him ideally suited for the cramped space of the red zone, where his wingspan can be an inviting source of comfort.
If you’re Manning, reminding yourself of the following juggling-and-falling catch during a crucial moment must warm the heart with Donnell healthy:
In a welcome twist, the Giants’ tight end depth chart actually improved in Donnell’s absence. After he was carted off in Week 8, the Giants inserted Will Tye into a larger role, and he became a starter by Week 10. That’s also when Tye went about the business of beginning to establish himself as a pleasant gift from the undrafted wishing well.
Tye was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015 after transferring from FSU to Stony Brook University, which is something less than a college football powerhouse. He soared to 1,015 receiving yards on 79 receptions during his final college season but wouldn’t have been given an opportunity to emerge had Donnell stayed healthy.
Now the Giants have the luxury of two tight ends who can excel while assigned specific jobs. At 6’2” and 262 pounds, Tye doesn’t have Donnell’s red-zone height. But he has speed in buckets.
At his Pro Day, he needed only 4.47 seconds to run the 40-yard dash. For perspective, that’s comparable to the Tennessee Titans’ Delanie Walker, who also lacks typical tight end height at 6’0” but posted a time of 4.49 back in 2006.
Tye ascended quickly once he was given an opportunity. The 24-year-old recorded 50-plus receiving yards in four of his seven starts, and he also needed just under half a season to score three touchdowns.
His overall receiving yardage from Week 10 onward made Tye a top-10 tight end during that period.
|Top 2015 tight ends starting in Week 10|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
He put himself among a distinguished list of names after all 32 teams deemed him unworthy of a draft pick. Tye's combination of elusiveness and an appetite for destruction led to nine missed tackles created over his starts, according to Pro Football Focus.
Even long before he became a starter Tye offered us a powerful glimpse of what was to come and how effective he is in the open field. He came through with four receptions for 48 yards in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers, often bursting up the seam before keeping his legs churning through contact. Of those four catches, three resulted in first-down yardage.
In fact, that game may have given us more than just a hint of what was to follow with Tye. If Donnell remains healthy and the Giants optimize their two tight ends, then Week 2 of 2015 could—and should—be what 2016 looks like.
That was the same game Donnell hammered home into the win column with his 12-yard touchdown catch. You know, the one that required his super-glue hands.
The two can complement each other and, in the process, make an already dangerous offense deeper and more dynamic. Tye can keep running away from defenders and working underneath routes to get the offense in or near the red zone, where Donnell’s length is a primary pillar.
Which brings us back to Shepard, who will also be shifting and darting while moving his offense into scoring positions. And speaking of complementing, he’ll slide in to serve as the wine to fellow wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s cheese.
Shepard is a little undersized at 5’10” and 194 pounds. But that has rarely mattered for the quick-cutting Oklahoma Sooner, who finished with 86 receptions, 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns during his senior season. He narrowly missed becoming a first-round pick, settling for being the fifth receiver off the board instead.
He joins a passing offense that ranked seventh in 2015 (averaging 271.4 yards per game), and Shepard won’t be settling for much as he does his best Beckham imitation.
His act is so good Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been seeing two Beckhams.
"I'll tell you, I was looking at tape the other day and we had a receiver doing some things against us and I told the staff we have to do a better job there against Odell,” Spagnuolo said, per Chris Pflum of Big Blue View. "And then I looked again and it was not Odell—it was actually Shepard."
The thought of two Beckhams existing in this world is nightmare fuel for any defensive coordinator not named Spagnuolo. You know the real Beckham well by now; he’s the guy who averaged an absurd 108.8 receiving yards per game during his rookie season. He also broke Randy Moss’ record for most receiving yards over the first two years to begin a career.
Now he’ll be alongside his apparent clone, as Shepard brings two much-needed complementary skills.
First, Shepard will improve New York's offense with his steady hands. As Thomas Maney of Pro Football Focus noted, only three other quarterbacks had more passes dropped than Manning in 2015. During the same season, Shepard dropped just four of the 90 catchable balls thrown in his direction.
Then, there’s his slipperiness, which again may be matched only by Beckham. As Maney also observed, when Beckham is excluded, Giants receivers forced just 11 missed tackles in 2015. Shepard created 12 whiffs on his own.
He’s the perfect fit for a McAdoo-orchestrated system rooted in volume and fast strikes. And Shepard comes with the added bonus of excelling from the slot. He had the second-highest slot yards-per-route run average (3.17) of any receiver in his draft class, again per PFF.
Shepard is the sort of versatile threat who can turn short throws into long gains. Just like Beckham does, and just as Cruz did before his injury.
Cruz should finally be healthy and able to make at least a meaningful contribution in 2016. But the Giants are in a comfortable position that eluded them one year ago; they’re not grasping for depth without their Pro Bowl slot receiver.
They’ve added Shepard, who can either be a Cruz or Beckham duplicate, depending on which angle you’re viewing him from. And then there’s the gift of tight end depth, with Donnell healthy and Tye maturing.
Add it all together, and McAdoo has the ingredients for his offense to take one final step into the league’s highest tier. It’s an offense that will need the support of a merely adequate defense. Mercifully, Vernon and the rest of the Giants’ free-agency haul should provide much more than that.